Victoria Otieno was waiting at a Nairobi bus stop when she felt blood gush from her body, the result of a secret, self-induced abortion — a method used by thousands of Kenyan women, with potentially fatal consequences.
Kenya’s constitution eased access to abortions in 2010, but entrenched stigma about the procedure means that many women resort to traditional practices or backstreet clinics, which put their life in jeopardy.
Even a reproductive health counselor like Atieno — her mind blanketed with fear — ended up gulping down a herbal concoction to induce an abortion in secret.
Hours later, as she experienced a public and hugely traumatic termination, she faced a flood of abuse from onlookers, living out the very nightmare she had tried to avoid.
“People will condemn you, criminalize you, try to chase you out of the community,” the 35-year-old mother-of-three told AFP.
Many women will do anything to avoid that fate, from drinking bleach to using knitting needles or clothes hangers to end their pregnancies.
The results are horrific, ranging from ruptured uteruses, cervical tears and vaginal cuts to severe infections, bleeding and death.
Every week, 23 women die from botched abortions, a 2012 study by Kenya’s health ministry, concluded. The study is the most recent available government data.
Campaigners say the actual number is even higher.
A report released last year by the non-profit Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) estimates that seven women and girls die every day in Kenya due to unsafe abortions.
In the Dandora slum in the eastern suburbs of Nairobi, where Atieno works with the Coalition of Grassroots Women Initiative, sanitation workers sometimes find abandoned fetuses in the neighborhood’s huge garbage dump.
Volunteers tasked with cleaning up the Nairobi River in 2019 retrieved 14 bodies from its trash-clogged waters, most of them babies.
Cultural and religious beliefs in the deeply Christian country have contributed toward creating a stigma so strong that even women who procure safe abortions believe they have committed a sin.
More than a year after Susan aborted a pregnancy resulting from a gang rape, the churchgoing mother-of-four still battles intense guilt.
“People see you as a murderer… it makes me feel like I did something very bad,” the 36-year-old told AFP.
Kenya’s constitution says abortions are illegal unless “in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.”